Secrecy and surprise are to warfare what water and salt are to survival: You might get by without them, but your chances are vastly diminished.
Concealing knowledge, methods, plans, and capabilities keeps adversaries guessing. It imposes costs and enables deception. But U.S. national security strategy is built first on deterrence, rather than intimidation. America follows Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick” and invests in military capability not so it can invade or seize territory, but in order to deter and dissuade others from taking that risk.
Deterrence depends on two things: the ability to inflict pain on the adversary and the willingness to do so. To be credible, the United States must show at least some of its cards so adversaries understand our capability and readiness to strike when necessary. If the threat isn’t credible, it’s just a bluff.
The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.
Adversaries are aware of the Air Force’s B-2, F-22, and F-35 stealth aircraft and how they can evade enemy air defenses. But the Air Force holds closely how they work and the tactics and techniques pilots use to defeat air defenses. As the next-generation B-21 emerges from the shadows, the Air Force will continue to hide certain features while letting the world know it’s coming.
Striking this balance between secrecy and surprise, on the one hand, and transparency and deterrence on the other, is the challenge. Too often, secrecy wins.
Over-classification is an open secret in Washington. It’s talked about in Congress. It’s discussed in the Pentagon. Gen. John E. Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describes it with a single word: “ridiculous.”
Knowledge is power, of course. It should surprise no one, then, that the power to classify information—in some cases to hold it hostage—is ripe for abuse. Once classified, it’s hard to know what’s being hidden or whether hiding it was even appropriate. As anyone who has ever worked in the classified world will tell you, classification moves rapidly in one direction—it’s easy to classify something—and hardly at all in the other.
Matthew P. Donovan, the former Acting Secretary of the Air Force and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, says over-classification affects every level of defense, from strategic funding decisions to building and executing war plans. “I’ve been in meetings in the Pentagon when competing for funding, where you can’t talk about the capabilities of programs,” he says.
How can anyone effectively judge whether an investment is prudent if its purpose and capability can’t be discussed? They can’t. Think that gets better when the budget goes to Congress? It doesn’t.
Over-classification is responsible for the kinds of seams that cause intelligence and operational breakdowns, like those that led to 9/11, and contribute to combat deaths when commanders lack access to vital intelligence. They fuel rivalries when operators in special access programs are empowered to put the kibosh on other units’ mission plans. They interfere with threat assessment. And they empower those “read in” on programs to sometimes lord it over those who are not.
For the Space Force, which operates in the most transparent of all domains, classification bars leaders from fully articulating threats and capabilities. While Space Force leaders have grown more comfortable over the past year describing weaponized space systems belonging to China and Russia, they are unable to indicate any counter-offensive capabilities.
While the U.S. has long seen space combat as off limits, China and Russia have no such compunctions. They see U.S. space assets as fair game for opening salvos, with the aim of blinding and disabling the communications, intelligence, and guidance capabilities that are America’s signature military advantage.
Exactly what the U.S. would do—or even could do—in response is unclear. What is clear is that the U.S. needs to be plainer about its capabilities and also its potential response to threats.
“If we’re going to be a force that is taken seriously and deters our adversaries, we need to start showing them things to deter them,” says Space Force Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno, its director of staff. “We need to show them what we have.”
That’s mighty hard to do when space capabilities and “need to know” are so finely compartmentalized across the intelligence and military communities that there’s not even general agreement on whether it’s wise to share more fully across agencies, let alone how. Pentagon policymakers have wrestled with this issue for years—with little to show for it.
This problem won’t be licked in the Pentagon, however. Donovan, now director of AFA’s Mitchell Institute Space Power Advantage Research Center, has seen this as an Air Force operator, a staffer on Capitol Hill, and a leader in the Pentagon, and he argues no solution is possible without White House leadership.
A bipartisan national security commission on classification, appointed by the President and instructed to report recommendations within a year would be a good first step.
“We need a very disciplined, thorough and robust process to decide what to reveal and what to conceal, not only at the DOD level, but also at the National Security Council level,” Donovan argues. “We need the same discipline applied to the decision calculus on how that program should be classified, who needs to know and when, and on [which] levels of warfighting, from the strategic to the operational and to the pointy end of the stick at the tactical execution level.”
Those capabilities that are revealed must be exercised and demonstrated to test and inform the opposition. Those that are not, must remain hidden, and may only be exercised in simulators to avoid exposing the secret. Balance must be maintained.
The enemy, is not us. It’s not the other agency, the other service, or the other office. Secrets must be shared among friends. But deterrence demands that adversaries know what can happen if they overstep in space, as in every other domain.
As Dr. Strangelove says in the Cold War classic film by that same name: “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”
He might just have been speaking of the Space Force.